In the name of God who made us, loves us and keeps us. Amen.
There is a moment in the recent Avengers film when two groups of good guys are mistakenly fighting one another because no one realises they’re all on the same side. Eventually, one of them calls out, in that portentous superhero way (it’s Benedict Cumberbatch, of course), ‘What master do you serve?’ His much scruffier (snarkier?) opponent is taken aback. ‘What? Am I supposed to say Jesus?’
‘Am I supposed to say Jesus?’ I keep coming back to that question. For one thing, the Ascension is the most superhero of Jesus’s stories: in this dramatic coda our death-defying, locked-door ignoring hero reveals his new power of levitation, and is taken up into the clouds as two of his servants appear out of nowhere to console his normal-dude friends. For the sceptical schoolboys I’m preparing for confirmation, that’s as hard to believe as Dr Strange or Spiderman showing up to save them. (Although in the interest of accuracy I should add that I was the only one in our preparation sessions who had seen the Avengers film; they have far more time for the gospel tradition than they do for superheroes.)
It probably won’t come as a surprise, then, that I’m not really someone who is bothered by the believability, or not, of the gospels—it is the truth behind the story that matters to me, what it tells us about God and about ourselves, about what it means to be human. And it is that question that I am thinking about this Ascension Day, as I imagine myself with the first disciples, with Jesus’s mother, standing there on that hillside, still not sure what it meant that this man they had followed to the bitter end wasn’t dead anymore, much less that he was about to leave again, so that we would never see him again in this life. The traditional way to preach about the ascension is to follow the lead of the angels, who tell the disciples to stop looking up: Jesus has to ascend so that we can get on with it, without our superhero leader here to do everything for us. But get on with what? What are we meant to be doing? That was a tough question for the first disciples, who had mainly been told to wait in Jerusalem until—cue the mysterious but hopeful music—everything will become clear, and you will be clothed with power from on high. But for us at the other end of Christendom, and what might actually be the end of Christendom, if church attendance figures are taken seriously, it’s a very fraught question. What master do I serve? Am I supposed to say Jesus?
I have to admit that I find it difficult to say that sometimes. I find it difficult, for example, that the story of Pentecost mentions not a single woman, neither in the room with the disciples, nor when Peter addresses the crowd of devout Jews from the whole of the known world. He calls them ‘Men, brothers’. The church has traditionally assumed that Jesus’s mother Mary was there, because she is described as being with the disciples shortly beforehand. But if she was there, the writer of Acts didn’t feel it necessary to mention her. And never mind the politics of it; for me it is personal. If there are no women there at Pentecost, does the spirit fall on me, too? Am I clothed with power from on high? Or does that just belong to the ‘Men, brothers’? Never mind how human men and women have interpreted these traditions: does God think I don’t matter?
I hope that the answer is no; sometimes I even believe that. Sometimes I can remember, in the words of the first woman to write a passion poem in English, more than 400 years ago, that Jesus, ‘without the assistance of man’ was ‘begotten of a woman, borne of a woman, nourished of a woman, obedient to a woman; and that he healed women, pardoned women, comforted women: yea, euen [when he was in his greatest agonie and bloodie sweat, going to be crucified, and also] in the last houre of his death, tooke care to dispose of a woman: after his resurrection, appeared first to a woman, sent a woman to declare his most glorious resurrection to the rest of his Disciples’ (Aemilia Lanyer, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, 1611). If the writer of Acts, with St Peter, fails to see the women in the crowd at Pentecost, at least the writers of the gospels tell us over and over the ways in which Jesus had time for women. So sometimes, yes, I can say Jesus.
But other Jesus-followers don’t always make it easy. Several years ago, after a governing body meeting where we were trying to figure out if it would be possible to celebrate all marriages in the chapel when the church does not officially allow its priests to do that, a colleague asked me afterwards, without any malice, ‘Why does the church hate women and gay people?’ She genuinely wanted to know, because it seemed puzzling that an organisation that prided itself on love and kindness would behave this way. Now, I don’t think the church hates women and gay people, although I would readily concede that it hasn’t always behaved well. But many, many people do think that now: for many, the answer to ‘what do I serve?’ would definitely not be Jesus, because Jesus’s followers haven’t exactly been selling his best points. ‘They’ll know we are Christians by our love,’ as the old song goes, but the majority of millennials aren’t seeing the love when they see the church entrenching its right in law to discriminate against women and to refuse to bless gay and lesbian marriages. They’re not seeing the love when the majority of US evangelicals support Donald Trump. They’re not seeing the love when the church fails to respond with humility or honesty to the scandal of abuse.
For those of us who are Jesus people, this puts us in a difficult bind. Am I supposed to say Jesus, when the sins of Christians have made a mockery of what Jesus stood for? Am I supposed to say Jesus, when Jesus has become a toxic brand, as the sociologist Linda Woodhead put it? More importantly, can I hear Jesus, when some of the loudest voices of the church are still saying only ‘Men, brothers’? It isn’t easy to hold on to the promise that we are all one in Christ Jesus when some in the church insist on reminding us that there is definitely gay and straight, male and female, people like us and people not like us.
Seeing the truth behind the story, what it tells us about God and what it tells us about ourselves, is never easy to separate from our complicated, hopeful, hurtful human history. Perhaps the most human point of the ascension story is the fact that as soon as Jesus leaves, the disciples on some level get it wrong, failing to see the women in the crowd that Jesus had been at pains to include. Maybe this is God’s way of telling us that we will be continually getting it wrong, and so need to be continually revisiting our principals. Is this love? Is this kindness? On the most basic level, have we even seen everyone in the room, much less begun to think about their needs? When I sit, as I did this lunchtime, with a diverse group of students and debate the most loving way to be charitable, I can see it as a challenge, even a possibility; I am no saint, and perhaps, after all, we will get a little bit better. After all, I am here, preaching on this Ascension Day, when the Founder forbade any woman from holding any post in the college. But as I stand with the disciples looking up on that hill of Galilee, I can’t say I find it easy to answer that question. What master do I serve? Am I supposed to say Jesus?
Rev Dr Erica Longfellow
Dean of Divinity, Chaplain and Fellow
New College, Oxford